Sofrito Cornbread Strata

What do you do when you’ve made more cornbread than you can eat? Okay, that’s not quite the situation. I can eat a lot of cornbread, thanks to my heritage. But I did have some that was getting a bit stale, and I needed to reaffirm its importance. Hence, this Sofrito Cornbread Strata.

Seriously full of flavor, it’s like creamy polenta encased in crunchy crusty cornbread. It is absolutely center-of-the-plate material, so build the rest of the meal around it. For my meal, I added some black beans, charred broccoli, and a roasted red pepper cream sauce. Pico de gallo or another Mexican-style salsa would also be great companions.

Sofrito Cornbread Strata with Sweet Potatoes, Poblanos, and Mushrooms; Roasted Chile Cream Sauce; Frijoles Negros
Sofrito Cornbread Strata with Sweet Potatoes, Poblanos, and Mushrooms; Roasted Chile Cream Sauce; Frijoles Negros

Here’s the recipe. Some helpful notes follow. Enjoy!

Sofrito Cornbread Strata

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced
1 cup sofrito (see recipe below)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
4 cups cornbread, broken into crouton-sized bits
3 cups sweet potato, roasted, peeled, and diced
2 Poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, and diced
1 1/3 cups unsalted vegetable stock or water

1. Heat oven to 350°.

2. Warm the olive oil in a heavy sauté pan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms. Sauté until they release their liquid.

3. Add sofrito and salt. Mix well. Remove from heat.

4. Place the cornbread into a large mixing bowl. Add the mushroom and sofrito mixture.

5. Add the sweet potato and the poblano. Pour in 1/2 of the stock. Mix well.

6. Check the mixture for saturation. It should be evenly moist, with no excess stock in the bottom of the bowl. Add more stock if necessary and mix well.

7. Press the mixture into several lightly-oiled cake rings (mine are 3.5 dia x 2.25 deep), and place them on a lined baking sheet. Alternatively, you can put the entire mixture into a single lightly-oiled casserole dish. (If you’re using cake rings, you can place some of the vegetables around the edges so that they are visible when you remove the rings. This adds to the visual appeal of the dish.)

8. Bake uncovered at 350° for 30 minutes. If using rings, remove them at this point and broil for 5 more minutes.

Yield: 6 servings

Helpful Notes By design, strata and their sweeter kin, bread puddings, make use of leftover bread that’s become stale. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to make a fresh batch of cornbread for this dish. There are a few other advance prep items in this recipe in addition to cornbread. They can all be made a day or two ahead of time, so that putting together the strata is a cinch. So, before beginning the recipe itself:

  • Make cornbread (use your favorite recipe)
  • Roast sweet potato
  • Make sofrito (see recipe below)
  • Roast Poblano chile (see process below)
  • Make vegetable stock (follow link for great tips—this is so easy!)

You can easily pop the sweet potato in the oven while your cornbread is baking.

The sofrito recipe yields 2 cups, only 1 of which you’ll need for the strata. Use the other cup to flavor rice (add to ½ cup rice while cooking) or beans (add to 2 cups beans after they have been cooked.)

Sofrito

2 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
4 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground annatto seed
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground chile (cayenne, chipotle, or ancho), optional
1/4 cup cilantro, or parsley, minced

1. Gently warm oil in sauté pan.

2. Add onion, bell pepper, and jalapeno. Sauté over medium heat for 5 minutes.

3. Add garlic, annatto, oregano, cumin, and optional chile powder. Sauté for an additional 5 or 10 minutes.

4. Add cilantro and turn off the heat.

Yield: 2 cups

Roasting Poblano Chiles: Turn your oven’s broiler on high. Place the chile in a pan under the broiler. Turn the chile every few minutes until it is entirely blackened and blistered. Place it in a plastic bag or a bowl with a cover. As the chile sweats, the peel will loosen. After about 20 minutes, you can easily remove all the peel. Resist the urge to rinse it, as doing so will wash away much of the flavorful oils. If you hit a stubborn spot where the peel won’t come off, don’t stress over it. It will be fine. Roasting can also be done on the stovetop if you have a gas stove. (This is actually closer to ‘authentic.’) Simply place the chile directly on the burner and turn on the fire. Rotate frequently as above, until the chile is fully blackened and blistered. Follow the same steps for sweating and peeling.

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FDR's Four Freedoms

Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Four Freedoms, and Publix

(This essay has now been published by Civil Eats, available here: A Chef Speaks Out on Farm Labor)

On October CIWbig-150x14616, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers received the prestigious Four Freedoms Medal from the Roosevelt Institute. The CIW, a worker-based human rights organization recognized worldwide for its ground-breaking work to end modern-day slavery and other agriculture-based labor abuses, joins a truly remarkable list of laureates, including Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton.

Rising from the tomato fields near the Florida Everglades—identified by one US Justice Department official as “ground zero for modern slavery”—the Coalition has relentlessly waged David-and-Goliath battles against monolithic food corporations. And they are winning these battles.

As a professional chef, their fight is of central importance to me. Aesthetic factors of taste and quality are the most obvious reasons: most people will agree that workers who are fairly paid will deliver a better product. But more important to me are ethical principles behind the food I prepare: why should anyone feast at the sacrifice of another’s dignity?

And not just dignity, but wellness, sustenance, and personal security are being sacrificed in the fields. We reap a multitude of benefits from their labor, yet their labor brings them poverty-level wages, physical and sexual harassment, dilapidated shelter, exposure to hazardous chemicals, and exemption from many federal labor regulations, including overtime pay. It’s an enormous disparity, and at the center of it all lies a question: shouldn’t we honor those who provide us with our nourishment? As we celebrate amidst overabundance, shouldn’t we work for complete enfranchisement of all workers along the food supply chain?

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is doing just that. In 2010, they established the Fair Food Program to improve worker conditions by asking retailers for only one more penny per pound for tomatoes grown in the southern Florida fields.

The program contains other features, too, such as a human-rights-based Code of Conduct for growers to implement in their fields. This code mandates zero tolerance for forced labor and sexual harassment, provides educational sessions for workers to learn about their rights and responsibilities, and establishes an oversight committee to monitor safety and compliance to the program.

All together, it speaks of respect, dignity, and equality, allowing field workers more access to the basic rights we all enjoy.

However, as national retail chains come to Asheville, we are reminded that there are more battles to fight. Publix Supermarkets, Inc. has announced plans to open a store in Asheville in 2015. For four years, they have refused to participate in the Fair Food Program.

Florida-based Publix is not only the most profitable supermarket in the US, they are also the 8th largest privately owned corporation in the country. In 2012, their retail sales totaled $27.5 billion. Their refusal to improve conditions for the workers who grow their tomatoes, in their home state of Florida, indicates that they are not entirely neighborly.

Contrastingly, eleven major retail chains have signed on to the program: Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, Subway, Bon Apetit, Sodexo, Burger King, Aramark, and Compass Group. The benefit for the workers has been tremendous, as more than $10 million has been paid to them through the program. But it’s about more than just pay. It’s also about humane standards. And it hits close to home in North Carolina.

North Carolina is one of our country’s leading agricultural states. It is easy to see that the experience of tomato growers in Florida is the experience of tobacco workers in North Carolina. And just as civil rights have always been important in North Carolina, farm worker rights should be important—for they are civil rights.

For me professionally, ethics along the food supply chain have become increasingly important. As I become more aware of injustice in the system, I also learn about companies and organizations who are trying to set things aright. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and those that have joined its Campaign for Fair Food are making major strides towards fairness for all.

Congratulations to the Coalition for this latest honor bestowed upon them by the Roosevelt Institute. They have been commended and awarded by the White House, the State Department, numerous international human rights organizations, and agricultural organizations, and we should award them by purchasing food where their program has been embraced.

We can award them further by sending a strong message to Publix Supermarkets that Asheville citizens will not patron their stores until they join the other national retailers in the Fair Food Program. You will not miss the penny you spend elsewhere, but it will constitute a fortunate bonus for the workers in the field.

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Crafting Non-attachment

The restaurant business is largely about ego. As a venue or chef builds an identity, egos become inordinately inflated. The maintenance of an ego requires the subjection of other egos. Subjection can be voluntary, or it can be coerced. Voluntary subjection often involves admiration and fawning. Coerced subjection is an uneasy thing, always ripe for rebellion.

Taking the position of Executive Chef requires that one have highly developed skills of coercion, for admiration comes in small numbers. One must be ready to squash any person, or group of persons, who wish to overthrow the regime. There are plenty of other egos on the rise.

I simply don’t have the interest in such matters. The time dedicated to cultivating an ego is better spent marveling at how things work: I mix my doughs. I let them rise as they will. I bake them. I let them go.

The ‘letting go’ part actually happens during the entire process. I bring together the elements. They work together as though I am not present. They develop towards their natural outcome. I am their servant more than their master. I can manipulate fermentation, but I certainly don’t own it.

As they work, I acknowledge that it is not me doing the work. It’s the yeast. The wheat. The water. The salt.

A craftsman will know just when and precisely how to interfere with working elements. And more importantly, a craftsman will know when not to interfere. Music works without a single person playing a guitar. Plants grow when we get out of their way—and they have shown that if we interfere too much, they will cease to nourish us.

Pride of craftsmanship is not equivalent to arrogance. Arrogance must speak loudly, of its own volition, about its own attributes. A craftsman can remain silent and let his work speak. This is how I wish to direct my energy. There is much more grace in it. It is a worthy goal to pursue: the heart of poetry, the core of craft, the essence of artisanship. It is the art of non-attachment.

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Edible Craft

My donning of the bread-baker’s apron was not just a clever escape from an increasingly unethical predicament. More than that, it was a return to simplicity, to usefulness, to deeper and more satisfying meaning.

Bulgur Oat Loaves.
Bulgur Oat Loaves.

One of the reasons I changed careers a decade ago–from overpaid hi-tech exec to wage-earning food worker—was because I wanted to have a trade that I could take anywhere and perform at any time. To do something useful, something beneficial and immediate.  To have the option of moving off to some small town somewhere and just making food. The art of cooking is the most useful of arts, the most beneficial of crafts, and is certainly immediate in its application. As the saying goes, “Everyone’s gotta eat.”

Working now as a bread baker, I find myself even more connected to craft. It’s one of the oldest of the culinary arts, with a legacy of sustenance that almost predates history. And yet, with all of its longevity, it hasn’t become obsolete or passé. It is as vital to our enjoyment—if not to our sustenance—as it has always been. Its current renaissance as popular craft, with so many small-batch bakeries popping up and everyone talking about “artisan bread,” illuminates a core characteristic of bread baking: it is still an art form of challenging mastery.

The elements of flour, water, salt, and yeast each possess their own inertia, and will do what they are going to do. As a bread baker, my job is to work in concert with their impulses, to act or react at the proper time for developing the best flavor and texture for the bread. It’s a well-scripted art and an improvisational art simultaneously. I accept that I will always be a neophyte.

A Mix of Artisan Hearth Breads
A Mix of Artisan Hearth Breads

While I work to achieve a base level of competence, however, the pieces I make are still useful. They don’t pile up like so many unfinished canvasses or studio tapes. I don’t have incomplete projects lying around, or lopsided vases or an archive of poorly-lit negatives. What I have is still useful and sustaining. My test pieces, however unhappy I am with them, are still enjoyable with a spread of jam or tapenade.

Most of all, my hands are busy with honest business. I make my pieces with pride and identity, knowing that they will be enjoyed. The ones I make next week will be enjoyed even more. Upon each is the indelible print of my hands.

Beyond fulfilling the need for nutritional sustenance, bread supplies a greater assemblage of nutrients for an artist: anticipation for the outcome, desire for ongoing exploration, the promise of long-term mastery, and active learning for a lifetime. Everyone needs a good slice of that for dinner.

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Kobayashi Maru on Wry

I want to pick up the thought I left at the end of the previous entry. The idea that I appeared as my own ‘deus ex machina,’ and rescued myself from a situation that was ethically compromising.

I’ve been in this type of compromising situation before. It was at the core of my flight from high tech into cooking several years ago. In fact, my entire life at that point was in violation of my own ethics. So I walked into my own headquarters and announced my departure. I resigned from the life I was living, and set out to determine my own terms.

It’s a classic Kobayashi Maru test, the famous Star Trek scenario which presented an iron-clad no-win situation. Every cadet at Starfleet Academy was required to pass this test as a show of character. Obsessed with beating the system, Kirk hacked the computer and rewrote the program.

In rewriting the program, or redefining the terms of engagement, we must proceed fearlessly. We must have a clear concept of who we truly are, for we are defying those that have a semblance of authority over us. It can be career-threatening, it can limit our life choices, it can end other relationships. It can put a strain on everything—especially our self-worth.

But at its core, it is about reclaiming one’s self-worth. Sometimes you must risk losing it in order to win it back. (It lends itself to all manner of trite ‘motivational speaker’ pronouncements, as you can see.)

By informing my employer that I no longer wished to serve in my executive capacity, I left the institution without a leader. Further, informing them that I would assume bread-baking duties was quite presumptuous, a heady dose of hubris.

It’s a stroke of self-actualized Tao recursion–the perfect way to manage any no-win program.

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Deus ex machina

There are these moments of realization.

Some come swiftly: Sitting in your hermitage above Mendocino, staring at the Pacific arc, vision folds in upon itself and reveals that you have finally reached the starting gate.

Some come slowly: As you work through your daily routine, minding the store in meticulous detail, the list of things awry becomes a bit too lengthy. The resistance has a fierce tenacity. You breathe a resigned sigh. Of course this is where it’s going.

The identification of a pathogen hinges upon perspective.

I reviewed my notes. I recalled conversations. I added 2 and two. I checked the temperature and barometric pressure. I realized that my workplace was in complete opposition to my personal momentum. I needed to move in a direction that was harmonious with my own integrity. I needed to present myself as working in full concert with my beliefs—especially since I share those beliefs with others. And especially since I really truly fervently believe my beliefs.

I have a view of the world that I wish to inhabit. It is idealistic, it is realistic in small proportions only. I don’t expect the world to ever be what I want it to be. But this is a far remove from supporting a pathogen which is working against my own view.

I did truly come to view my employer’s institution as a pathogen, a causer of disease. From the support of industrial agriculture and therefore industrial toxicity at every level of food production, to the endorsement—implicit and explicit—of unfair labor practices to the absence of commitment to a better way of doing all things, they are indeed a pathogen, empowering other pathogens, in cultivating a sick world.

However, there is another perspective.

I was the pathogen, threatening the health of their institution. And they would take the necessary measures to limit the damage I could do within their system.

It was a slowly developing realization, but the moment of clarity was crystalline. Pathogen that I was, I needed to prolong my stay, to end the possibility of two-way harm, to maintain my functionality while preparing for my own (self-induced) expulsion.

Summon the deus ex machina, garbed not as Euripides might have him, but as a simple gentleman baker. Nietzsche may sneer, but only from jealousy.

 

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Effecting a Coup

In the past few weeks, I effected—and was affected by—a coup d’etat. I was both the usurper and the usurped. I survived victoriously.

I want to spend a few entries on this, to explore what happened and why, and how the benefits will likely far exceed my own expectations.

First, the basic facts: I resigned my position as Executive Chef at an Asheville institution. The reasons were numerous, and all centered upon ethics. I can’t identify a single shared ethic between the owners and me, and I found myself in an uncomfortable dilemma: either compromise my own ethics and continue to represent the café, or resign. Accepting Shakespeare’s encouragement to be true to myself, I chose the latter. It’s much easier to sleep at night that way.

Ethics are a serious matter, and so often we find ourselves in situations that violate ours. My patience with such scenarios has dwindled to zero, and though it poses financial risk, I am content with my chosen solution.

Now for the punch line: I didn’t just resign. I repurposed myself to the role of bread baker. I abdicated the command post so that I could be a worker. It’s a change that I am proud of. I vacated a compromising position, and took on a role that allows me, daily, to look at the products of my honest day’s work. I go home a little tired from the physical movement, feeling in my muscles the accumulation of lifting and kneading. I spend my work hours in meditative craftsmanship. I go home and sleep an honest round of sleep.

Like Moses leaving the Pharaoh’s palace to join his people in the brickyards, I feel at home among the workers in the kitchen. We are kindred. I have always identified with them, for in my DNA I am one of them. I am happy as I rediscover the joy of making food, of using my hands, of smelling fresh bread as it develops through so many stages.

I see it from so many kaleidoscopic angles. Each image illuminates the coup, providing greater depth to both the action and the reaction, confirming the gut feel that I have done the right thing.

More to come.

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Plate-Based Activism Preview

In ten days I’ll be presenting at the NYC Vegetarian Food Festival. It’s an honor to be invited…not to mention a great responsibility to uphold.

I’ll be speaking about activism, but not in the form of leafleting, nor paying people to watch a factory-farm video. There’ll be no call to march, no organizing of a picket. These are all very powerful activities, and each brings its share of progress.

What I’ll be talking about is a very individual, almost private, form of activism, asking each person to focus on their dining plate. I call it Plate-Based Activism, and it’s as simple as this: It’s pledging that one will only put goodness on his or her plate.

“Goodness” can be defined in myriad ways. Nourishment, kindness, compassion, goodwill, influence, progressiveness, absence of harm…and I mean all of these. Wrap all the above in deliciousness, and it’s a win all around.

Given the present state of agriculture—whether growing and harvesting of plants or of animals—“goodness,” to me, points to a very concrete manifestation: The plate should contain organic plant-based food.

Plate-based activism is the key to beating Monsanto. It is the way to win the war against GMOs. It leads to a decisive victory over the factory farming of animals. These causes are nothing new. However, we often overlook the rampant disenfranchisement of American agricultural workers, which is at the core of the industrial machine. (See my previous post, below.) Plate-based activism can lead to victory there, too.

It’s not a difficult thing. The most challenging aspect is awareness—but this is a deep-rooted trait among alternative and subversive cultures. The other test comes at the market, when we make our purchases. Often we compromise due to economics. And this is when the multi-national agro-industrial corporations win. This is when goodness loses.

Think of it as a bus boycott: Do not pay the fare—even if it is cheap and the bus is a convenient form of conveyance—in hopes that the system will change. Do not be intimidated at the size of the system, nor ashamed at the smallness of the fare. Exert your economic power. If only for the sake of your own conscience.

It’s a form of saying ‘grace’ at meals: Look at your plate, take inventory of the goodness that you are propagating, acknowledge the absence of wrong-doing, and believe that all can be well.

For those of you who can attend, I’ll be presenting at 11:05 on Saturday, March 2. I’ll expand on all the above points, offer sources of information, and hopefully provide momentum for all of our personal progress.

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Post-traditionalist Pecan Tart

Pecan Pie
Pecan Pie

I am included in this article (Mountain Xpress, Asheville, NC) about cooking for the holidays. My ideas have a strong connection to my upbringing, but as with all things, I’ve applied my own arbitrary updates.

With the article is my recipe for a pecan tart. I hope you enjoy it!

 

Pecan Tart

Yields one 10-inch tart
1 10-inch pie crust, pre-baked
2 1/2 cups pecan halves
1 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup rice syrup
1 cup soy milk
1 tbsp. vanilla
1/8 tsp. sea salt
3 tbsp. flax meal
1/4 cup arrowroot, dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Toast pecans in oven for 15 minutes.

In heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine maple syrup, rice syrup, soy milk, vanilla, and sea salt. Bring to simmer over medium heat. Lower heat and simmer for 10 more minutes, stirring often.

Vigorously whisk in the ground flax meal and dissolved arrowroot.

In large bowl, combine syrup mixture with pecans, and stir thoroughly. Pour into pie crust.

Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees, or until bubbly and browned. Let cool thoroughly before slicing.

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Kohlrabi and Scapes

A Diet of Farmworker Wellness

I was recently invited to speak at a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York, on a topic which is close to my heart: How does one have a diet that promotes wellness?

I probably don’t need to specify that I spoke about a plant-only diet of organic, whole foods. I touched upon several concerns: The primary one, regarding my own well-being; secondarily, the well-being of animals, both wild and domestic; and thirdly, the well-being of the soil and water of our fair planet.

To me, these concerns interweave with and support one another, providing a beautiful and robust justification for having an organic plant-only diet. To be honest, they are on equal footing, not one of them being more important than the other.

But there was another concern I brought to the discussion, one which I believe should be given equal time and prominence with the other reasons. It is the well-being of agricultural workers.

Plainly put, industrial, chemical-based agriculture has a monstrously devastating impact on the people working in the fields.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10,000-20,000 farmworkers are poisoned on the job [annually] due to pesticide exposure. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that farmworkers suffer the highest rate of chemical-related illness of any occupational group: 5.6 per 1,000 workers.” (1)

The International Labor Organization has this to say about agricultural work:

“In terms of fatalities, injuries and work-related ill-health, it is one of the three most hazardous sectors of activity (along with construction and mining). According to ILO estimates, at least 170,000 agricultural workers are killed each year. This means that workers in agriculture run twice the risk of dying on the job compared with workers in other sectors. Agricultural mortality rates have remained consistently high in the last decade compared with other sectors in which fatal accident rates have generally decreased. Millions more agricultural workers are seriously injured in workplace accidents involving agricultural machinery or poisoned by pesticides and other agrochemicals. Furthermore, widespread under-reporting of deaths, injuries and occupational diseases in the agricultural sector means that the real picture of the occupational health and safety of farm workers is likely to be worse than official statistics indicate.” (2)

These summary level figures indicate the fomenting ‘perfect storm’ conditions in which field workers labor.

One factor that contributes to this maelstrom is that we do not even know the total number of agricultural workers in the US:

“The number of total migrant and seasonal farmworkers [in the US] is estimated as from 2.5 to 5 million.” (3)

Neither do we know the number of pesticide related illnesses, due to a paucity of information and neglect of reporting at various government levels.

“The difficulty of determining rates of pesticide illness is exemplified by the lack of ability to estimate the number of cases of acute pesticide illness. Although 30 states require reporting of occupational pesticide-related illnesses, many cases are not reported. Only 8 states have surveillance programs for these illnesses, and poison control center data can also lead to underascertainment. At this time only 5 states have legislation requiring extensive reporting of pesticide use, and 4 of these states require growers to report pesticide use on crops. Data collected from these pesticide use reporting programs include product name, amount applied, location, and crop type. Pesticide use reporting systems can then be linked to episodes of pesticide illness, but clinicians often are not aware when pesticide illness reporting is required in their state.” (4)

In addition to these hard-to-determine figures, the US has no national incident reporting system. This is a critical gap, since half of all agricultural workers travel from state to state, and therefore are not likely to show up in state databases.

Further, state workers’ compensation programs, which could conceivably provide estimates on such incidents, vary drastically among the states, even to the point that some completely exempt agricultural workers from benefits.

Disability programs are also inconsistent from state to state. In my current home state of New York, farmworkers are not eligible for disability pay. This complete ineligibility carries with it the absolute lack of reportage.

Health insurance information, a potentially rich source of information for epidemiologic studies, functions poorly in this regard because most farmworkers—about 70% of them–lack health insurance.

As a final insult, even death certificates, which often list the cause of death as well as the occupation of the deceased, cannot be relied upon.

“The transient nature of farmwork may have important implications with respect to studies done using death certificates… Death certificates may not reflect the contribution of farm work to a worker’s total work life.” (5)

At best, we can only say, with gross understatement, that we have a massive problem. While the lack of information is a problem for those who track the diseases, the diseases themselves are the problem of the workers. In the absence of workers’ compensation, disability pay, and insurance, all they can do is suffer through it all.

While they are suffering, working conditions worsen.

The EPA and other government organizations do regulate, if minimally, the use of pesticides and other hazardous materials. However, they provide frightening loopholes. For example,

“The Worker Protection Standard does not apply when pesticides are applied on an agricultural establishment…for research uses of unregistered pesticides.” (6)

In essence, this one exception makes American agricultural workers into laboratory test animals.

There’s more:

“Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) requires that pesticides sold or distributed in the United States be registered by the EPA. Under this statute, the EPA can only register a pesticide if it determines that the pesticide, when used in accordance with its label, will not cause unreasonable adverse effects to human health or the environment, taking into account the risks and benefits to the agricultural economy. …Since FIFRA mandates the use of a cost-benefit analysis, even health risks ‘of concern’ have been disregarded when the EPA determines that the benefits of using a pesticide outweigh the risks.” (7)

In the cost-benefit analysis, benefits are measured in terms of money. The costs or risks are measured in terms of illnesses or deaths. As has been mentioned above, these are unlikely to present themselves. It’s a bargaining process, pitting Pedro against Monsanto, like a cage match between David and Godzilla.

David, in this case, might even be a minor, perhaps even under 10 years of age. Children are very active in American fields—and these aren’t the fields of the family farm. These are industrial fields, in one of the world’s most hazardous occupations, where the only connection to family is their mother or father working alongside them for substandard pay with the exclusion of all social benefits.

“Current US law provides no minimum age for children working on small farms so long as they have their parent’s permission. Children ages 12 and up may work for hire on any farm with their parent’s consent, or if they work with their parents on the same farm. Once children reach age 14, they can work on any farm even without their parents’ permission. Outside of agriculture, children must be at least 16 years old to work, with a few exceptions: 14- and 15-year-olds can work in specified jobs such as cashiers, grocery baggers, and car washers, subject to very restricted conditions…Children [in agricultural fields] often work 10 or more hours a day: at the peak of the harvest they may work daylight to dusk, with few breaks.” (8)

This problem is as old as industrial agriculture itself, exacerbated by enough variables to make one’s head ache. But the most unforgiveable of these variables is this: children working in agriculture are explicitly exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. (9)

The plight of children in agriculture has been the focus of extensive studies by the Human Rights Watch group, who issued comprehensive reports in 2000 and 2010. Many people in our affluent, developed, and progressive society might be surprised that a worldwide human rights watch group wants to protect our children. They wouldn’t need to do so if we ourselves would.

All of these problems comprise an almost insurmountable and impenetrable wall, a barrier which protects industrial agriculture corporations from the growing indignation from the public. But no matter how angry the public becomes, it take will decades to dismantle the current legislation and enact proper protections.

Asking an agricultural worker to find her wellbeing in the current scenario is like asking her to find a strand of hay in a needle-stack. We force her into this impossible and excruciating task every time we consume the products from chemical-based agriculture, especially animal products.

According to the massive landmark report from the UN in 2010, “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials:”

“Animal products are important because more than half of the world’s crops are used to feed animals, not people.” (10)

The magnitude of this figure cannot be exaggerated. It means, literally, that half of what we are doing is unnecessary. We are poisoning agricultural workers, children included, as a matter of choice. When we choose to eat animal products—beef, pork, mutton, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and countless derivatives—we are supporting needless sickness and dying among the legally defenseless people who grow our food. Is there a dietary choice that is more monstrous?

By choosing a plant-based diet, we can immediately cut this impact in half. If we go further, and choose only organically produced grains, vegetables, legumes, and seeds, we are approaching eradication of the problem. We seldom have such power in our own hands.

A diet that truly promotes wellness includes regard for everyone involved. My plate does not exist in isolation. It is the product of low-paying manual labor from millions of foodworkers, whose efforts result in my own sustenance at the sacrifice of their own wellbeing.

Our sustenance has always been dependent upon others. It is only fair that we treat with respect those who feed us. To those who might bristle at such hints of altruism, consider this piece of rational-self interest: it is not wise to poison those who are responsible for our food supply.

 

Postscript:

This is not an immigration issue, legal or otherwise. The regulations were written for citizens, of course. And the chemicals are quite non-discriminatory. They will affect anyone who picks your supposed “Clean Fifteen.”

This is not about whether workers in a third world country are being fairly treated. This is about whether workers in our own developed, educated, privileged, enlightened country are being fairly treated.

As for immigrant farm labor, we have been dependent upon foreign-born workers since the founding of our country—and the problem has never been resolved satisfactorily. Our current immigrant and farm labor problems are extensions of 19th century farm-worker issues, which became exponentially more complex in the 20th century.

 

For further reading on the issues faced by agricultural workers, please see the following books, reports, and websites.

The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945, Cindy Hahamovitch, The University of North Carolina Press

The Hands That Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers Along the Food Chain, Food Chain Workers Alliance, http://foodchainworkers.org/?p=1973

What’s Wrong with Industrial Agriculture, Organic Consumers Association, http://www.organicconsumers.org/organic/IndustrialAg502.cfm

The National Center for Farmworker Health, at http://www.ncfh.org/

Farmworker Justice, at http://www.farmworkerjustice.org/

 

References:

1. “Pesticide Safety,” Farmworker Justice, http://farmworkerjustice.org/content/pesticide-safety

2. “Agriculture: a hazardous work,” International Labour Organization,  http://www.ilo.org/safework/info/WCMS_110188/lang–en/index.htm

3. “Studying Health Outcomes in Farmworker Populations Exposed to Pesticides,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1480483/

4. Ibid.

This report further illuminates the problem: “For farmworkers to be counted in the systems mentioned above as having pesticide-related illness, clinicians must both diagnose and report these illnesses. Most clinicians receive little training in occupational and environmental health (Graber et al. 1995; Schenk 1996). The National Strategies for Health Care Providers, a working group organized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, concluded that clinicians do not generally receive specific training in diagnosing pesticide poisonings or other pesticide-related health effects (National Environmental Education and Training Foundation 2002). One study of Washington State clinicians demonstrated that few appeared to be well versed in the diagnosis or treatment of pesticide poisonings. Even clinicians from agricultural areas on average could identify only 75% of pesticide symptom questions correctly.”

5. Ibid.

6. EPA’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS) for Agricultural Pesticides,  http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/twor.html

7. “Pesticide Safety,” Farmworker Justice, http://farmworkerjustice.org/content/pesticide-safety

8. “Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture,” Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2010/05/05/fields-peril-0

9. US Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, Fair Labor Standards Act,  http://www.dol.gov/whd/flsa/index.htm#.UHYUrFFB0_w

10. “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials,” United Nations Environment Panel,  http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Publications/PriorityProducts/tabid/56053/Default.aspx

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